Inspired by ancient Japanese artforms from ikebana to wabi-sabi, contemporary Irish artist Mary Wallace is drawn to images of bowls and vessels in her new exhibition, which debuts during the Wexford Festival Opera.
What was the starting point for your new exhibition?
My ideas are inspired by Japanese perceptions of beauty in imperfection, complexity in simple things and the extraordinary in the everyday. As I explore these concepts the work can take different directions. About two years ago I introduced organic elements to my broken vessels giving them a surreal quality – trembling willow leaves quickly followed by delicate and ephemeral cherry blossoms. References to ikebana, the art of “making flowers alive” come to mind. Now, I am looking at native Irish trees, especially those that blossom or display catkins on bare branches like hazel and willow. Trees are deeply imbued with symbolism and meaning: strength, and fragility, resilience, beauty, the preciousness of life. At a time when awareness of the necessity to protect nature, our trees, wildflowers and biodiversity is increased, I felt compelled to bring this new element into my kintsugi work – the repair of precious things using gold, with an Irish twist!
When did your fascination with all things Japanese begin?
About six years ago I became aware of the Japanese art form kintsugi – the repair of broken porcelain using gold. The idea goes back to medieval times and I already had an affinity with using ancient art media like egg tempera and wax encaustic. To work with gold leaf was alluring. My Precious Bowls and Moonjars evoke the idea that, although broken and mended, their intrinsic beauty remains. In Japan the break is considered integral to the object and this blemish is valued as part of its story. By using gold, attention is drawn to the flaw yet the preciousness of the piece is enhanced. Closely connected is the concept of wabi-sabi – the acceptance of transience and imperfection – recognising change and fate as aspects of human life. We all experience times of brokenness as life throws us the odd curveball. In overcoming health, financial or other problems we become stronger, even more resilient. This aspect of my work resonates and many people become quite emotional and express to me the sense of hope they get from it. Haiku inspire me too – three line poems about everyday things conveyed with utter simplicity but written to elaborate rules of structure, style, and philosophy. I see similarity with my work. Appearances can be deceptive as a simple broken bowl can reveal more complex depths the more you look and consider what is before you. Take time to look past the obvious. See a landscape, a river, a forest reflected in the surface.
How has your artistic journey evolved?
I came to art by surprise. I have always had an affinity with colour and enjoyed making things but didn’t think I could draw. That all changed back in 1997 when I spent a full year learning how. I had not drawn or painted since childhood. By the end of that year something very special had happened; a desire so strong that it could not be ignored. At the time I was a mother of three young boys – eight, seven and five. I had a very good work arrangement working mornings and had all school holidays off. I was that “superwoman” they talked so much about in the 1990s. Something had to give. In the spring of 1999 I got very sick and couldn’t speak for three days: the first words I did speak were “I’m giving up work”. By June I was out. By August I was taking a portfolio course. In 2000 I started to paint. I had my first exhibition that year and haven’t looked back. My life as an artist is completely satisfying. My practice is so versatile and I have extensive experience working collaboratively in the community. I love what I do.
Which painting resonates most with you?
“The River Merchant’s Wife III” [main featured image above] – it is inspired by a poem of love and romance simply told by a young woman who is waiting for the return of her beloved. The idea that a poet writing in 8th-century China can portray thoughts and feelings comparable to a 21st-century experience shouldn’t surprise me but it does! I urge you to read it. This is the third painting depicting “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August”. In this series I use pieces of porcelain from the same broken cup. There are more pieces and so more paintings to come. Perhaps this is truly where my journey with brokenness began. Before I’d ever even heard of kintsugi.
Need to Know: Mary Wallace is exhibiting during Wexford Festival Opera, from October 23 to November 3, at Clayton Whites Hotel, Wexford; www.artwallace.com